When asked what they wished for in the New Year, many neighborhood leaders replied world peace, better public schools, and free parking. Free parking? Yes, Cleveland Park ANC Commissioner Richard Rothblum listed those very items (fortunately, in that order).

In the latest Dupont Current (which unfortunately has no online archives except June 2007), a variety of neighborhood leaders gave their New Year’s wish lists, which also included items like affordable housing, more engaged and harmonious communities, and a new pool. But as a sign of just how entrenched the free-parking mindset is in DC, parking was one of the top items on Rothblum’s mind: “It would be great if some heavenly body would come down and build a large underground, free-parking garage.”

A large free parking garage would not actually solve the neighborhood’s problems.

Maybe it depends how large. More likely, residents who forgo car ownership because they live close enough to Metro would choose to have cars. And property owners who choose to devote their own space to parking would instead utilize the space another way. With more car owners in Cleveland Park, Metro ridership would decline and Zipcars would become less economically sustainable.

Free parking tips the balance of the economic equation in favor of cars because it pushes a burden—the cost of maintaining auto storage space and the opportunity cost of using that space for other purposes—onto the public, to be borne by taxpayers whether or not they use the parking. Rothblum doesn’t realize that he’s paying for all the parking already in other, indirect ways. We should instead internalize the costs of car ownership so that individuals can make fully rational decisions. If they want to pay the actual value of occupying a 160 square foot piece of land, then great. But many might decide that renting a car for a few hours at a time (like Zipcar) is more economical. And it would be better for society, for walkable neighborhoods, and for the environment too.

When I drove to New York for New Year’s (which, unfortunately, is cheaper and easier than taking the train; it shouldn’t be), I was faced with the same New York parking dilemma: cruise around for half an hour to find a precious on-street space which had street cleaning Tuesdays instead of Mondays (Monday Dec. 31 wasn’t a holiday, so I’d have to move my car mid-visit if I got a Monday cleaning space), or pay $20/day or more for a garage. Consequently, there were countless other cars similarly cruising for spaces. Twice I saw a space open up only a short distance ahead of me, only to see the car in front of me grab it or, in one case, back up quickly to stop me from taking it first. Would these people—mostly visitors, I’m sure—have paid $10 a day for these spaces? $15? Imagine the revenue for NYC, and the equalizing of at least one incentive which, subsidized by the taxpayers of New York, currently makes driving more appealing than the train.

Update, September 10, 2012: Mr. Rothblum, who moved from Cleveland Park to Springfield, VA since this article, emailed with this comment:

If I ever said that we need more free parking, it was as a joke. The inclusion of “world peace” in my supposed wish list leads me to think that I was joking, quoting from the movie “Miss Congeniality”, where all the contest competitors’ anodyne responses to their aspirations was “world peace”. Failure to put a value on goods that are presently free is the source of most of our problems, including especially the environment. It costs nothing to pollute, and lots to clean up. We could easily encourage recycling if we charged market prices for trash disposal. There are many other examples where the market should be allowed to do its work. I can’t conceive that I ever advocated free parking as a solution to anything.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.